Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Garden of Literature: A Clear Success for 'A Twisted Misson'

Judy Campbell's new book, "A Twisted Mission," is the eighth book in her series of Olympia Brown mysteries. It comes as a prequel to the others and treats the period in Olympia's life when she is deciding whether to continue as a college religion teacher or look for a more pastoral position. A divorced parent of children now living outside the home, she's also considering how to expand her social life and stir up some male companionship.
The author's practice in these books is to take on important contemporary social issues while placing Olympia in the midst of a life-or-death crisis. In "A Twisted Mission" Olivia has taken the job of chaplain for a church-run summer camp in Maine. Campbell has a strong feel for the details of summer camp life, its routines and rhythm, as well as for the delights and hardships of roughing it on the rural New England coast. As one of her characters remarks, a religious summer camp can be "a good place to learn life lessons."
Set during the AIDS crisis of the nineties, the book is also particularly strong in dealing with sympathetic connections between gays and straights. Chief among these is Olympia's friendship with the gay priest Jim, an attractive character able to give advice and understanding of the crisis that develops when a camp staffer is humiliated and harassed for his sexual orientation. On this score, the book widened my understanding of the male shaming of gay sexual preferences as a destructive and all too common form of bullying.
The novel also offers a hint of midlife romance while affirming the consolations of friendship and the joys and satisfactions of good fellowship on one hand and restorative solitude on the other, though this novel also contains snakes in its garden, storms in the summer skies, and human fallibility among the campers. I recommend this book for any reader seeking likable characters, a good story, and a deftly embedded moral universe. Olympia Brown might be a minister, but her stories are never preachy.